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May 12 , 2008

Around the World for 900 Years: Watching History Happen


George Cole's history includes events not commonly described in routine history books:

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An important religious figure who drinks a cup of pus to "prove a philosophical point". A Chinese Emperor who serves up his most beautiful harem-girl at a dinner party, along with her head on a plate to prove he hasn't substituted inferior meat.

Such are some of the characters gracing this new review of history, whose narrative style is much more vital, incisive and quirky-humorous in tone than the usual history book.

We see Christopher Columbus inviting his men to take an oath that they have reached Asia, after which they must stick to it or incur a huge fine or have their tongues cut out. Captain Cook, noted for his navigation skills and his compassion for the natives he encounters, nearly runs aground twice on his final trip, and becomes subject to fits of rage, mistreating natives, who finally kill and eat him.

Cole's history is World News, reported as it happens by a roving observer/commentator in an imaginary space station drifting around the Earth. The commentator has to return to base occasionally, and misses a lot of the dull bits.

Some of the bits not missed are a Chinese eunuch admiral sailing to India in the early 1400s with 27,000 men in 300 huge sailing ships. Later in the 1400s Joan of Arc is ransomed to the English while Ottoman Turks are battering down the walls of Constantinople with cannons. In the 1800s, Hong, believing himself to be Jesus' younger brother, leads 20,000 supporters to take over Nanjing. Karl Marx publishes "Capital", a book Cole suggests few people have read beyond page three.

There's sex and violence too! The Black Death arriving from Asia reduces Europe's population by a third in two years and while it rages, strangers copulate in the streets, as in their prisons, do the French aristocrats awaiting the guillotine. A Burmese monarch kills 6000 of his subjects for their hearts, which will go towards a magic elixir to make him invulnerable and immortal.

And scandal? There is a revelation that the British Admiralty took three hundred years to bother about a cure for scurvy.

Recommended for those to whom history never appealed in school.

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